Put yesterday’s BART action in the chapter on direct action, titled “Ineffectual Protest, Unsympathetic Reference Party, Bad Targets, and Fuzzy Reasoning”. Nothing is more exemplary at how poorly thought out, how ineffectual and how self-flattering some direct action has become in the last twenty years.
Effective protest is a spectacle targeted at an influential group that can then pressure the target to stop whatever behavior is being called into question. The not altogether unrelated Montgomery Bus Boycott, for example, was a movement to convince black riders from using the segregated bus system. The bus purveyors were the target. The issue was segregation, in the micro and macro. Without the income from black riders, and in the baleful gaze of the national spotlight, both white riders and the transit systems would ask the city to overturn its ordinance, while the legal system would be forced by the public to come to constitutional judgments—these were the reference publics. Concurrently, there was a legal challenge that benefited from the added publicity of the boycott. In the end, the boycott successfully put pressure on both the city and the apartheid system. It was no accident, and not simply the luck of having actors coming together fortuitously; everything, including, arguably, the personage of Rosa Parks, was planned for. It was not simply rage bubbling over, or the will of the people forcing power to its knees, or justice prevailing, or any such blah blah. Like almost everything in life, a well planned and executed strategy bore fruit.
But yesterday’s action, bore none of these characteristics. First, it took its aim away from its rightful focus—the killing of Charles Hill last month. The action yesterday, instead, focused on what is at best at an unexciting issue—BART’s shut down of its cell network to pre-empt communication for a previous action. That thematically pairs the protests with Anonymous’ tone deaf attack on a user database from MyBart, and had similar parallels of annoying nit-picking and confused self-righteousness. Whether or not BART had the legal right to shut down cell phone reception in the tunnels, it makes a poor issue, and is certainly not as important as yet another death at the hands of BART transit police. Moreover, up until a few years ago, there was no cell phone service on BART tunnels and many stations by virtue of the fact that the tunnels and many of the stations are underground. BART created a cell phone network for riders below just a few years ago; it owns that network and leases service to providers. Turning off their own cell service is hardly the kind of in your face injustice that animates the American spirit of activism.
The action also highlights an inability to recognize the difference between the target and the reference public. Seeking to shut down BART, activists make an enemy out of the very group that it should be relying on to pressure BART. As the Mercury News’ live blogging of the pre-announced protests reported:
One 40-year-old Oakland woman was upset at being unable to board the train to get home. “I was in Civic Center and it was closed and they said to come to Powell and it was closed,” said the woman who declined to give her name. “After a full day of work, I’m tired. I need to go home and rest. I’m mad.”
Such stories are never hard to find, and the media loves them. That’s another thing that activists forget; the media isn’t rooting for them. It wants to make them look like self-righteous dilettantes, out of sync with the public. So often activists make this an easy task. There are few working people in this country who haven’t melted in a station or train car/bus during a service interruption, or tried to figure out a way home after a shut down of transit. That experience more than any other weds this reference public together, not the abstract murder of someone they didn’t know, nor the loss of cell phone reception that didn’t even exist two years ago. A similar dynamic occurred around the Oscar Grant demonstrations, in which the very group that needs to be made aware of the issue, is targeted instead as being complicit. It may be news to some, but people who use BART and live in the Bay Area don’t see themselves as complicit in the deaths of Grant and others. They are shocked and horrified by such acts. And they actually hate BART. They are helpless before its regular fare increases. They’d like a reason and a way to hurt BART.
To go back to the Montgomery bus boycott, organizers worked tirelessly to make sure that riders could participate in the struggle, make it their own and still get where they needed to go. They cultivated their foot-soldiers by making sure to include the biggest affront to their dignity in their daily lives. By contrast, yesterday’s action targeted riders more than any other, in the same way Anonymous’ clumsy attack exposed the personal information of riders and then tried to convince them to blame BART for it. Activists needs to accept this central truth; any action that hurts the public certainly won’t be effective.